Archive for the ‘teaching’ category


January 22, 2017

First, thanks to everyone who read yesterday, and I know someone did …

I’ve had this site a long time, and a lot has changed in the duration. I started thinking about definitions, who we say we are, what we think is the “core” of who we are.

As I said yesterday, I work in an office now five, sometimes six days a week. I never thought I’d do that. I thought I would always be able to define myself as “concert pianist” or “piano teacher”. Perhaps I still can because I still do those things. But they aren’t what I do for most of my waking hours anymore.

Sometimes this makes me sad. We make choices because we must always do that. Consider: We have the choice, every day, to get out of bed or not. Really! It’s just that most of us, most of the time, just get up without thinking we’re choosing.

So we choose, and maybe a way down the road we think: “Man, I wish I could go back.”

We can’t, not in the way we think we want to. We’ve changed. I’ve changed. At least for the foreseeable future, because of the choices I have made, I will not be flying overseas to play concerts. I won’t be driving cross-country to exhibit dairy goats. I won’t be learning to shoot from a dear friend in Kansas. (Wait, what?!) OK, I better explain that.

Some people, including me, thought this lady was crazy to teach a totally blind person to shoot. Well, she started. She did the most important part, teaching how to handle a gun safely. Her son was the one who actually taught me to shoot. And now that I’ve done it once, I have no desire to do it again. I know I could if I had to. And I know she wasn’t crazy. She just believed so entirely in my capability as a human being that she didn’t even think twice about teaching me what anyone else would have wanted to learn.

She, more than anyone, exemplifies what I’m trying to say. She didn’t see blindness as my defining characteristic, even if it did have an impact on how I did (and do) a lot of things. She remade me as a pianist, stripping away my whole technique and building it over into something better. Do I wish I was playing more piano these days? Definitely! Will I always have such a crazy schedule that I can’t? Probably not.

So: Our lives are like books. There are chapters. They’re all connected because they’re part of the book. In some cases, our book might seem like more of a collection of short stories. But they’re all connected. The “I” is what connects them, unifies them. The same “I” that kept goats is the same “I” that sits at a desk most weekdays in a downtown office building. The same “I” that went down a spiral staircase in a Prague cathedral doubled over in laughter at my brother’s monkey screeches that frightened a gaggle of British tourists is the same “I” who kept a promise to a friend that she would not die alone in a hospital or a nursing home.

That “I” isn’t something that can be put into words. It’s just the outward circumstances that can be enumerated.

My circumstances now are that I fit my music-making and music teaching into the spaces left after the full-time office thing is done. And on that note I’ll close. I’ve got a bunch of students coming in less than two hours to study for upcoming music exams. We’re going to have a contest to see how many different scales they know. It should be a blast. (Wait, what?!) Yeah, I know, scales aren’t “supposed” to be fun. Well, that’s just the stereotype. But that’s a subject for another post.

The Mind of a Composer

February 25, 2009

I never thought, as a piano performance major in college, that I’d spend a good percentage of my professional time composing.

As a concert pianist, I’m immersed in the ideas of other composers, and I love the intellectual challenge of trying to figure them out. Most of the time, it’s fun, although there are stretches that are just plain hard. Like now, as I painstakingly make my way through the Allemande from Bach’s fifth English Suite. There are so many changes in harmony that don’t quite seem logical to me–but, hey, I’m just the player. Yesterday’s practice session got me to the end of the first half, and it’s always interesting to see what stayed in memory a day later when the piece pushes my mind to its limits like this.

On another level, I’ve earned a good portion of my annual income from composing. My “Soul Essence” pieces have continued to sell steadily, and I passed the hundred-song mark sometime last December. Besides these individual portraits in sound, there has been the “Five Elements” series of music for healing, meditation or plain enjoyment, and I’ve written lots of things to enhance my piano teaching.

Perhaps the most fun, though, is my teaching composition to students. These range in age from five to their late teens (pretty much K-12 kids). So many kids tell me, “I can’t compose,” because they’ve never tried it and, to a lesser extent, their creativity hasn’t been stimulated.

Every year, I hold a series of competitions for my students called the Piano Olympics, and one of the categories is for composition. Once kids discover that they can be creative, that, with the technological advantage of a digital keyboard hooked up to a computer and software that not only creates lots of different sounds but can also correct uneven rhythm and otherwise produce a very polished end result, and that there is no such thing as a “wrong” composition, they often surprise themselves.

Often, this process takes a few years to unfold. Students who only composed the first year because I made them do it decide they want to try something bigger their second time around. And they’re not content to do two songs that sound alike. They begin exploring different moods, styles, and national traditions–music with an Asian flavor is popular.

There’s a different frame of mind for each of these. As a pianist, if I’m interpreting someone else’s music, there is room for my own personal sound, and this is what sets me apart from the other thousands of pianists out there–it’s what distinguishes Pianist A from Pianist B and both of them from Pianist C. But, the composer’s ideas must take precedence and guide what I do.

Writing for students, with a pedagogical goal, requires me to work within sometimes very strict limits. A first-year piano student won’t be able to play what a third-year student can, and yet, both deserve engaging music that is enjoyable to play, teach, and listen to. How, for instance, do I create a full, rich harmonic landscape without moving beyond the scope of what a 5-year-old’s hand can reach?

Finally, music for healing or as an expression of a person’s humanity, perhaps more than the other two forms, demands that I, as an individual, step aside, make room for the “song of the spirit” to come through. It’s the same tenet that should guide healing of any kind: “It’s not about me”.

One of the things that gives me the most satisfaction as a teacher is that all my students don’t sound like me. They don’t even sound too much like one another! We produce a CD of their Piano Olympics compositions every year, and it’s always fascinating to me to listen to the whole thing, as a group, and hear just how diverse the music is.

We’re heading into “crunch time” now–the deadline for the composition competition is April 1, and some of my longtime students, who can usually be counted on to produce very interesting pieces, haven’t even started yet. As I write this, two kids are just about done, and two more have the main content of their work finished. A fifth has a melody, but nothing beyond that.

Over the next few weeks, guiding students in what to listen for as they create, how to balance repetition and change, using instrumentation to highlight their ideas, and coming up with a title that fits the piece, I’ll be challenging them and challenging myself to think and hear in new ways.

Let the games begin.

Teaching Moments

October 30, 2008

“Education is the manifestation of perfection already in man.”—Swami Vivekananda

What do our words and actions teach others? What do we learn by observing the words and actions of others?

You don’t have to be a “teacher” in order to educate someone. You do it by being who you are, indelibly shaped by your experiences and guided by your beliefs.

There are plenty of obvious examples of this. Parents show their children how to tie shoes, make sandwiches, drive cars and balance checkbooks. They sign kids up for piano lessons, dance or martial arts classes, religious instruction, sports clinics or art camp, and tutoring in preparation for college.

But what are you teaching others simply by going through life? When you have a brief conversation with a fellow passenger on a train, or stand in front of someone in the grocery store checkout line, the opportunities for being observed are countless. Whether it’s to notice the book you’re carrying on that train, or the different vegetables you’ve got in your cart, these can spark curiosity and encourage exploration, expansion of another person’s horizons.

We each hold unique knowledge that only we can pass on. Stories, songs, images, ideas—these are the vehicles for learning that humanity has relied upon for millennia. They will change as our society changes, to fit the needs and desires each generation has with regard to how they communicate and understand. (If you need an illustration of this, just consider the difference between sending messages with pigeons and sending them via e-mail, or hearing a village monk play a flute after a three-day pilgrimage as opposed to choosing from among ten thousand songs by pressing a button on your MP3 player.)

Each time we are presented with new information, we are also presented with a choice. Do we wish to further our knowledge and incorporate new material into our reality, or do we want to remain where we are?

To deny anyone this choice by restricting their exposure to education or limiting their access to it is one of the gravest disservices imaginable. For someone to say, for instance, that you can’t learn to read because you’re a girl or because you’re black or because you’re blind and can’t use print books like everyone else or because you can’t pay to attend a fancy school or because no one else in your family has ever done it before or because your parents work in a particular profession or worship in a certain way … These ideas may seem to make perfect sense to those who hold them, but from the outside looking in, they don’t.

Perhaps I’m thinking about this a lot since today, I will take sixteen boxes of Braille books to the post office and send them to a pastor in a very rural part of Malawi, a country in central Africa that is arguably one of the poorest places on earth. I’ve been sending books to this pastor since 2001. Where he lives, there’s no running water, no electricity. There are no services for people with disabilities, including the blind. In many cases, rather than going to school, they are sent out to beg by their families.

Not content with this outcome and knowing that, like every other human being, the blind and disabled have dignity, are respectable, and, most importantly, can learn and want to learn. So, he has gone from village to village and organized true grassroots groups of these people, teaching them to garden, to cook. Women who are blind have learned to cook. The Braille books have been passed from one person to another to another. Now, instead of one person reading them and discarding them, they may get read by twenty people, maybe more. Each person who touches the pages gains knowledge they didn’t have before and sees into a part of the world they never could have imagined before.

Once that’s done, I’ll go back to my “regular” job of teaching piano. It doesn’t matter to me whether you are five or seventy-five. All I need in order to teach you is your desire to learn. It is a great privilege to watch students of all ages, from all kinds of backgrounds, discovering an expressive art form. Teaching, for me, is about passing on the things I think are precious–art, knowledge, belief in the innate power of the human spirit to rise above challenging circumstances–that inspires me to teach. These gifts shouldn’t die with me. I have a responsibility to pass them to others, whether they are in generations younger than me or those who began life before I did.

Even writing is a form of teaching, and I’ve learned more, I think, from the various blogs I’ve visited than I have from any other aspect of the Internet. Perhaps this hasn’t been “pure” knowledge, as in verifiable facts. But the sheer volume of possibilities to catch a glimpse of the world through someone else’s eyes is unparalleled anywhere on earth.

You can only give people the chance to choose. You can’t force them to follow your logic. For every person who chooses to change, there is one who refuses and remains in their current situation. To judge one as “better” than the other is easy, especially if we believe strongly in the advantages of one way over the other.

Today, I’ll be helped by many people. The woman who drives me to the post office has grandchildren of her own. What will I learn from her as we talk, laugh, carry boxes, maybe share a cup of tea? What will I absorb during my piano lessons, and who am I to say the “wisdom” of a 7-year-old is more or less valuable than that of a 12-year-old or an adult? That’s a judgment I refuse to make.

Judgment is, in its own way, a lack of education. If we can’t accept the endless array of humanity around us without a basic level of universal respect regardless of differing viewpoints, then what does that teach others about us? More importantly, what does that teach us about ourselves?